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Stairways to Heaven, Temples of Doom, and Humane-Washing

A slightly "better life" for factory farmed animals is not a "good life."

During the weeks before Thanksgiving each year, I predictably receive more emails and do more interviews about our meal plans. Millions upon millions of turkeys, pigs, and "red meat" animals are killed for these festive -- at least for some -- occasions. People seem to become more aware of, and do more soul-searching about, who (not what) we choose to eat around holidays and at other times. Most likely this is because we are inundated with advertisements about holiday gatherings that center on the food before us.

One name that invariably comes up in these discussions is that of iconic animal welfarist, Dr. Temple Grandin. Previously, I've written about what Dr. Grandin claims to have done to increase the welfare of "food animals," and have posed serious questions about the robustness of what she says (Note 1). You can also learn a lot by reading "Why the Meat Industry Loves Temple Grandin." It's called money!

When Dr. Grandin's name comes up, many people focus on what she calls her "stairway to heaven," on which food animals take their last steps, if they can walk, and take their last breaths, before being brutally slaughtered on killing floors of industrial slaughterhouses. Inevitably, even when a conversation begins with a consideration of the approximately 45 million turkeys who are killed for Thanksgiving each year (of the 300 million who are killed each year), the discussion returns to cows and other factory farmed "red meat" animals. Of course, the horrific places where cows and other animals are raised for food aren't really farms, they're really places replete with torture and violent deaths.

What (really) is Temple Grandin's Stairway to Heaven? Stumbling to killing floors or temples of doom

Concerning her Stairway to Heaven, Dr. Grandin writes:

"One night when the crew was working late, I stood on the nearly completed structure and looked into what would become the entrance to heaven for cattle. This made me more aware of how precious life is. When your time comes and you are walking up the proverbial stairway, will you be able to look back and be proud of what you did with your life? Did you contribute something worthwhile to society? Did your life have meaning?"

As romantic and inviting as that sounds, it's really a bit too poetic for me, because in reality stairways to heaven are ramps to death on which animals stumble, and most often their deaths are undignified and brutal. Killing floors can be viewed as temples of doom, no pun intended, where horrific acts of violence are routinely committed daily.

A "better life" isn't necessarily a "good life"

In "Going to slaughter: Should animals hope to meet Temple Grandin?" I wrote: Does Temple Grandin actually make the lives of factory farmed animals better because they are treated in a more humane way because of her research? I think, to be fair, that perhaps some animals - likely a tiny fraction of the animals who go to slaughter -- may have slightly better lives than they otherwise would, but let's face it, no animal who winds up in the factory farm production line has a good or even moderately good life, one that we would allow our dogs or cats to experience. In fact, their lives are marked by constant fear, terror, and anxiety. So, "slightly better" isn't "good enough" and I'd like to see Dr. Grandin encourage people to stop eating factory farmed animals and call attention to the fact that none of the ways in which they are currently treated even borders on what should be acceptable and humane.

Furthermore, even for the tiny percentage of animals who might have a slightly "better life" -- perhaps 0.000001% of cows in a very small way -- their "better life" surely is not a "good life." And, it's only slightly better in the last few moments before they're killed. It's been a long trip for them from the feedlots to the stairway, along which there is incredible pain, suffering, and death.


All in all, stairways to heaven are feel-good scams, and no one has to eat factory farmed cows, turkeys, or other animals on Thanksgiving or at other times of the year. When people talk about the "good life" of factory farmed animals it comes down to what Jessica Pierce and I call humane-washing. We also note that If you hear the word “humane,” you can pretty well bet that something bad is happening to animals and somebody is trying to clean it up and make it look less ugly.

It also is unfortunate for the science of animal welfare that the language of “humane” is so frequently and persistently popping up in the literature, because it raises questions about the objectivity of the science. “Humane” is a dirty little lie. It’s a feel-good word that means we’re throwing animals a tiny bone of some sort, like a bigger cage or a curved chute leading to the killing floor. At one point, Temple Grandin talks glowingly about a “relatively humane” kosher restraint pen (a pen that squeezes, lifts, and inverts an animal for throat slitting). She says, “If I visualize myself as an animal I would willingly walk into the modified . . . pens.” We surely would not.

If animals could hold what Ralph Nader calls “The Great Talkout” in his new book Animal Envy, I’m sure they’d tell us to leave them alone. Food animals are sentient beings and they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, rather than wantonly slaughtered for our meals. They are deeply feeling individuals who care about what happens to themselves, their families, and their friends, and it's highly likely that being with their families and friends makes them feel better, as it does for other animals.

Allowing dogs to bridge the "empathy gap"

Many people also get very upset when they’re asked if they would eat a dog. Dogs aren’t any more sentient than other mammalian food animals, so if you won’t eat a dog or place them on a factory farm, why allow other sentient beings to experience this horrific treatment? Thinking about dogs can help bridge the empathy gap that separates them from other sentient beings. This false division, into what are essentially mutually exclusive groups, allows for non-dog beings to experience pain, suffering, and death from which dogs are protected.

Stairways to heaven don't do much at all. It’s high time that people stop being apologists for the reprehensible and thoroughly unnecessary violence that routinely occurs in all aspects of preparing sentient beings for our meals. The animals want it to stop right now, and so should we all.

Note 1:

My Beef With Temple Grandin: Seemingly Humane Isn't Enough

Going to slaughter: Should animals hope to meet Temple Grandin?

Food Justice and Personal Rewilding as Social Movements

The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human

This essay was written with Psychology Today writer, Dr. Jessica Pierce.

Note 2: I was given permission to post this comment sent to me:

Temple Grandin's "stairway to heaven" reminds me of a nightmarish image from my own dark past. Here it is from Wikipedia's entry on Treblinka:

"From the undressing barracks there was a fenced-off path leading through the forested area into the gas chambers. It was cynically called die Himmelstraße ("the road to heaven")"

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.

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